Q: In the 1990s the Eindhoven regional economy collapsed and the main employer, Phillips, shed tens of thousands of jobs, but it has now rebounded strongly. How has that been achieved?

A: It was indeed a real crisis. In the mid-1990s, my predecessor, the chair of the university and the chair of the chamber of commerce came together to face this problem. At that time our national government was looking over the sea – they had their back to the region. So we had to face it together. 

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It was then that the ‘triple helix’ approach was born: the combination of public partners, private partners and knowledge institutions. Money was put together in an economic fund, 10 guilders per inhabitant, matched by Brussels, and that brought us a lot of success. We had a focus from that moment on hi-tech industry. We became known for exceptional innovative strength. We intend to be a ‘smart city’.

In the 1990s we were nearly bankrupt. In 2018 we became the number one economy in the Netherlands [based on economic growth]. We don’t compete with other cities or among ourselves; we strongly work together as co-operation is part of our DNA. Our knowledge partners, private partners and public partners all work together here. 

At this very moment we have economic growth of 4.9%. We have the highest economic growth in the Netherlands. To compare it – we don’t compete but to compare it – growth in the rest of the Netherlands is 2.6%. Ours is twice the growth of France and Belgium. I am really proud of it. It’s not because of me, though, it’s because of the entrepreneurs and knowledge institutions.

We have an excellent base of companies, which includes OEMs such as ASML [the world’s largest supplier of photolithography systems for the semiconductor industry, headquartered in the Eindhoven region], Phillips and DAF [a truck manufacturer that has its headquarters and main plant in Eindhoven] but also family-owned companies such as VDL, which is a parent group of 80 individual companies with 16,000 employees and a turnover of €6bn. We also have 6500 SMEs and they work strongly together with OEMs, not only in delivering spare parts but also in delivering solutions.

The OEMs have their own R&D, they have the highest amount of R&D activity in the Netherlands, at €2bn every year. And the SMEs have their own R&D and they deliver solutions for problems and challenges. 

ASML worldwide has turned over €10bn and every month it attracts 350 new employees because the company has to face the challenge for being, and staying, number one in the world in its market segment.

And that points to a challenge we have to face in our region: the war on talent. ASML recruits four out of 10 employees from abroad because we have a lack of highly skilled and highly educated people here.

Q: How can you address the talent issue?

A: I always say about this region that it’s all about knowledge: it is our new fuel. In the Netherlands we were dependent on gas. We are getting rid of the natural gas and now our new fuel for the future is knowledge. We combine knowledge with the enterprise. 

We have several hi-tech campuses in this region, the most important is High Tech Campus Eindhoven, originally founded by Philips [to promote open innovation]. And our university is strongly connected with enterprises – number one  in the world on this metric, actually.

On our campuses, research is always combined with schools and knowledge institutes and based on the needs of companies. The brightest example of this is the Brainport Industries Campus – it is brand new. 

Wwhat is special about it, in the middle of the building there is a vocational education school: 1500 students are working in the centre of this Brainport Industries Campus to exchange experience and knowledge from two sides. So the curriculum is not only decided by the school, but also by the wishes of the companies. The people from the companies educate the students so it’s a vice-versa connection between the students and the companies.